March 2022, Mission: Write a story inspired by a visit to CERN in Geneva!
This visit and the upcoming anthology are the project of Comma Press of Manchester’s Ra Page, in cahoots with redoubtable Prof of Particle and Accelerator Physics Rob Appleby of Manchester—supported by CERN’s enthusiastic outreach personnel. (Rob Appleby trained himself to be a professional-level Chef during lockdown, respect.) Ra of Comma invited about a dozen UK writers to participate in the anthology and the visit.
Ra Page read Physics and Philosophy at Balliol, a fertile combination. Thus Comma Press has published a number of ingenious anthologies where authors team up with scientists in various fields. I was lucky to come into Comma’s orbit due to Comma rescuing from derailment a Stanisław Lem celebration volume in which I had a parody homage to The Cyberiad.
Due to the logistics of me and Cristina flying to Geneva from Spain, we were obliged to lunch in Geneva airport.
The smear of celeriac across the plate was nicely cheffy and the jasmine rice lovely although vast. However, the sauce upon the mass of chicken was horridly salty. After scraping this off, what remained lacked taste, so the cost was absurd. But crazy prices are true for everything in Switzerland, probably even for paperclips. The best policy for happiness is to ignore the CF Swiss Franc prices unless any item is in 3 figures, to use a credit card, and don’t look at the receipt.
Consequently we really did appreciate being generously treated to lunch in the huge and rather decent CERN Restaurant, where the Gamay was good to glug, as well as treated to group dinner in a nearby village on the Friday night of our visit. Not to mention our Friday breakfast. (We were staying in smart studenty CERN Hotel/Hostel # 1 a few hundred metres from Restaurant # 1.)
Ah, the tour! Here for the first time—drum roll—I actually meet Ra by eldritch blue radiance beside the Synchrocyclotron, the first accelerator at CERN.
After the Synchrocyclotron, us scribes had two hired vehicles at our disposal. Vastly amiable and redoubtable Chris Thomas drove me and others far out into the French countryside to descend to the 14,000 tonne Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector within the LHC, where the Higgs Boson popped out. Only superskilled engineers can instal the vast constructions which physicists of the tiny require. Chris was only just back from driving lorry loads of aid for Ukraine from CERN nonstop all the way across Poland—along with former secretary for the ATLAS detector and Blues singer Connie Potter (they’re multi-talented at CERN!), who organised much of our visit.
Down we went into the bowels of the Earth. In red hard hat and hairnet for extra safety I’m underground here near a ‘Compact’ Muon Solenoid.
Our effervescent rapidspeak Italian guide, Salvatore Buontempo brandishes a chain that jinks about in mid-air to demonstrate how much magnetism is still present even outside of The Machine which is twice the weight sideways of the Eiffel Tower frame. It’s called a ‘Compact’ Muon Solenoid compared with other subsequent much bigger toys of the gods. No pacemakers should be present. It was very good of Salvatore and other top experimental physicists to volunteer for us—such is the spirit of CERN. Salvatore’s hand disappeared briefly due to gesticulation.
We went to the Data Centre where Spain’s Xavier Espinal was presiding specially for us, and tried to pick up super-heavy storage discs of the past. Nowadays all the data is distributed worldwide.
And in due course we came to the Antimatter Factory, which manufactures as much antihydrogen as it can, magnetically bottled otherwise it will annihilate dramatically with any normal matter.
This is the theme of two super SF novels of the late 1940’s by Jack Williamson, writing as Will Stewart, which marvellously were in my local library in Tynemouth when I was a schoolboy: Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock. Seetee = Cee Tee = Contraterrene, in other words antimatter. I was very excited by these books and by the possibility of antimatter aliens who survived the explosion of their antimatter world when it wandered into our own solar system and managed to survive. Little did I think that in a future century (yes!) I’d be standing near the world’s total stock of Seetee. (This sounds rather like the blurb of a pulp novel, but it’s true.) The Antimatter Factory is the domain of the ingenious Jeffrey Hangst, than whom no other particular physicist is more specialised, as he remarked during his lively and emphatic spiel. To date, CERN has accumulated about 75,000 anti-hydrogen atoms. As regards mass, that’s just 0.0000000000000000000126 grams. But CERN is champion at minuscule measurements and that’s enough antihydrogen for Jeffrey Hangst.
For Jeffrey’s next trick, currently under construction and into which we clambered about on steel ladders and gantries—costing more money than one could spend on all Geneva’s high-precision watches during a decade, and worth every CF—is the most perfect vacuum chamber. Into this chamber of nothingness Jeffrey will toss all his treasury of antimatter to see whether the antimatter heeds Earth’s gravity by falling downward—or whether it drifts upward, manifesting antigravity. If the latter, this will be epic, and Jeffrey’s Nobel Prize will arrive the next day.
Next day Cristina and I transferred on our own to the town centre for a few hours of tourism, to the CitizenM boutique hotel (Best Shower Ever award from me; no more designs needed nevermore. Please!)
Am I fond of fondue? Way back in 1983 I was invited to Paris to launch the French translation of one of my novels, and my publisher had his secretary treat me to Switzerland’s trending signature dish of fondue for lunch. (Or maybe this was her own idea, due to fondue being chic.)
I restrained myself for another 40 years until, beside Lake Geneva…
One dips torn bread and little boiled potatoes into this molten mix of 5 different Vacherin and 5 different Gruyère cheeses—moitié-moitié, as they say, half-and-half. It costs half a fortune.
I may wait another 40 years for more fondue, but the food market and gastro shops just inland from the formal English Gardens beside Lake Geneva are to die for—or rather let’s say, to go bankrupt for. We happened upon La Bonbonnière pâtisserie café where I bargained my left kidney without regret, even though I normally never eat sweet things.
In our lovely town hotel stood a hollow woman.
Due to time and too many slopes to climb, despite an on-street pedestrian lift, alas we didn’t get to the new statue in Frankenstein Park of the Monster. (Pity! NewCon Press UK published just last year my The Monster, The Mermaid, and Doctor Mengele). Geneva airport, when leaving, was solid with about 20,000 departing skiers. Where had they all been hiding?
This was and is one of the great experiences of my life. Reader, to do exactly the same as we did you’ll need to wait for three years, although of course in the meantime CERN will welcome you at their Visitor Centre. You can’t go underground yet a while because, the day after we left, they were switching on the particle beams.
Considering the cosmic implications, it’s rather trivial of me to even mention cheeses or chickens. To repeat: Little did I think that in a future century I’d be visiting Terra’s total stock of Contraterrene. Thanks, CERN. And Rob and Ra. And Connie and Chris and Jeffrey and Xavier and Whoever Else Sorry I Missed You.